March 07, 2012

My grandpa. Like Meemaw, but without all the cussing.

If you've been here awhile, you are well acquainted with my wonderful, complicated, loving, stubborn, feisty grandma, Meemaw. You know that I took care of her for 2 of the last 3 years of her life. You also know that she passed away from lung cancer this past December.

I've mentioned her husband, my Poppy, before, but he deserves more than a mention. A girl couldn't ask for a better grandpa than mine was. Everyone liked Poppy. He was kind and generous and trustworthy. He really valued integrity and honesty. More than anyone else in my life, he took the time to talk about the choices we make and how those choices make us. He taught me about character, something I desperately needed more of as a young adult.

He was a "face-time" grandpa. He liked puttering around outside with his grandkids. We worked with him in his tool shed, fed the chickens together, tended to his garden, rode shotgun to the feed store and town, and laughed and sang with him at the dinner table. (I have a cassette recording of Poppy and 2-year-old me singing Ain't She Sweet? together.) He was a champion letter writer.  He wrote letters to us all up until a few months before he died.

My brother Collin and me barbecuing with Poppy in 1983.
How cute was Collin?!     

Bonding with a new generation. 
Nature Boy and Poppy puttering around outside, supervised by Raven and Meemaw and Poppy's sweet chow mix, Sadie.

He understood that we needed that time. He knew that the time with him could fill some of the space left by absent fathers, by troubled mothers. He made each of us feel really and truly loved. And having the Poppy Seal of Approval meant more to me than most people's acceptance. If someone as awesome as Poppy liked and approved of me, I figured I must not be all that bad.

He was my hero.

I lost my grandpa in September of 2008 after a short battle with lung cancer.  His doctor found a shadow on his chest x-ray and referred him to a hospital an hour and a half away for a lung biopsy and a PET scan.  I drove to Texas to take him for his tests.  (The hospital was too far away for my grandma to drive him.) 

Poppy was exposed to asbestos as a young man.*  Doctors had been monitoring spots on his lungs for decades.  He started smoking cigarettes in mid-life, and he always regretted it.  He tried to quit smoking several times, and was finally successful 6 months before he died.  He wanted to be a better example for my then 8-year-old son who had said, "When I grow up, I want to be just like Poppy.  Except I won't smoke." 

A couple weeks after the biopsy, I returned to Texas to take my grandparents to the hospital for the results.  The pulmonologist was very soft-spoken and my grandpa wore hearing aids.  He couldn't hear what the doctor said, so I had to repeat everything to him.  Which means, I was the one who told my grandfather that he had inoperable lung cancer that had spread to his bones.  I had to tell this wonderful man that his doctor believed he had about a year to live.  It was devastating. 

Not only that, but the doctor told us it would no longer be possible for my grandparents to live alone in their home.  He said my grandma would not be able to handle her husband's care by herself and that they needed to choose:  moving in with a relative or moving into a nursing home.

Three weeks later, my grandparents left their home, left most of their belongings, and moved in with me and my family in a tiny 3-bedroom house in another state.  It happened so quickly that there was no time to sell their house.  There was no space for extra furniture.  No room for their many dogs.  (All of their dogs went to live with their youngest son, except for one: their little one-eyed terrier mix, Tina.  She lost her eye in a turf war with a pack of redneck pomeranians.  True story.)

A week after the move, my grandpa was placed on hospice.  And a week after that, he was gone.

Following is the eulogy I wrote for Poppy's funeral.

William Henry Lambert
November 17, 1920-September 21, 2008

“Bill” Lambert was born in California in 1920. He was the youngest of five children. Bill’s father died when he was five, and his mother and the children moved from place to place struggling to make it through the Great Depression. Sometimes they only had potatoes to eat.

Bill voluntarily enlisted in the Army during WWII and served on the U.S. coastal defense until 1944 when he went to Europe to serve under General Patton. Bill was given the chance to go to officer’s training school, but he chose instead to work his way up through the ranks. He made this decision because he saw that officers who hadn’t gone through the ranks weren’t respected like those who had. During his enlistment, Bill attained the rank of Tech Sergeant and was a rifle sharpshooter. He earned several medals including the Bronze Star. He was honorably discharged in November of 1945.

In January 1944, Bill met a fellow soldier’s sister, Dorothy. Nine days later they married. After the war, the Lamberts settled in Illinois near Dorothy’s family. Bill got a job at the Alton & Southern Railroad. He worked as a switchman and union officer, helping workers and management find common ground. He advocated for black men to have the right to apply for railroad jobs, and for testing to be the criteria for hiring decisions. It was his job to notify wives when their husbands were accidentally killed on the tracks, and he worked to get the men's families the largest pensions he could. Bill worked there for 30 years before retiring and moving to Texas.

Bill and Dorothy have four children, five grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. They were married for 64 years. “Poppy” loved horse racing, the Dallas Cowboys, Bill O’Reilly, vegetable gardening, being outside, writing, musicals, and westerns—especially John Wayne movies. His greatest dream was to have his entire family close and provided for. He loved to tell stories and jokes. Sometimes multiple times…

Everyone who knew Bill liked and respected him. He was a true patriot. He had a strong faith in God. He was a man who took his responsibilities seriously, and he did his best to live an honest, virtuous life. He was a wonderful example of the Greatest Generation.

If you knew Poppy, please leave a comment below sharing a favorite memory of him.


*My grandpa wasn't diagnosed with mesothelioma (exposure to asbestos is the primary risk factor), but it's possible that he had it.  His cancer was so advanced when it was found that further testing was unnecessary and it wouldn't have been particularly helpful.  Please check out mesothelioma survivor Heather Von St. James's blog.  She's inspiring!

Heather Von St. James - Mesothelioma Survivor        Blog


  1. I loved listening to all his war stories. His horse racing stories were good too, like the one about seeing Sea biscuit race before he got big. He was young and some of the old men who hung out at the gas station he worked at asked him who the best long shot would be in the upcoming race. They knew he studied the horses in the paper and was pretty good at picking winners. They didn't want the sure thing though, they wanted a high stakes long shot so he told them if any horse could come from behind and beat the odds that day, it would be Sea Biscuit. So, they sent him across the street to the track with a couple of bucks to place a bet for them. He got there in time to make the bet and watch the race. Sea Biscuit came from behind and lost by a nose. He went back to the station expecting to find some angry men but instead, they were ecstatic. They were happy because for a moment, even though it was a brief moment, they thought they were going to be rich.

  2. Awww, thanks for sharing that, Tree Guy! <3

  3. "He knew that the time with him could fill some of the space left by absent fathers, by troubled mothers. He made each of us feel really and truly loved."

    This hit so close to home. My Pappap was my world, and reading about your own hero, well it was extremely intimate and beautiful. Such a powerful and sweet tribute to a wonderful man; thank you for sharing his memory with us. <3

  4. Thanks, Erin. There's something about the love of a grandparent. Especially when it's doubled with the love of a father or a mother too. It's powerful. And healing.

    Maybe someday I can hear more about your Pappap. Because I get it. <3